7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Did You Know Jesus was a Master at Word Play?
This section of the Sermon on the Mount appears to contradict Jesus’s assertion that He has come to fulfill the law, not abolish it: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye…But I tell you, do not resist an evil person” (vs.38-39). Are we really supposed to roll over to evil? But Jesus came to explain the meaning behind the law, and how we humans often do not apply it as it was intended.
The Mosaic Law was given to a group, a nation, and was not meant as a guide for individual behavior. If Joseph had followed Mosaic Law, Mary would have been stoned, along with the infant she carried. By Jesus’s time, Mosaic Law was being carried out on an individual level. Jesus wanted to show His people a better way.
Sinking to the level of evil, Jesus knew, would never eradicate it. Ghandi reiterated this concept thousands of years later, “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.” We say we strike back to put evil in its place, but striking back only stirs further retaliation, and, worse, chips away at our own soul. Instead, Jesus advocated creative non-violence. The National Catholic Reporter detailed Jesus’s brilliance with this tactic.
A poor person in the first century AD would have had no more than two garments. If they were taken to court and handed over not only their tunic but their cloak as well (v.40), they would be naked. Besides embarrassing the court, they would also cause all witnesses to break the law—it was illegal for the Romans to look at a naked person, and it was prohibited by Jewish law. Jesus’s listeners would have understood.
They also would have seen the paradox in Jesus’s instructions to “go…two miles” (v.41) if forced to go one. Roman law allowed soldiers to force the poor to carry their packs for a mile, but no more. If the forced person kept walking, the soldier would have broken the law, causing more trouble for themselves than it was worth.
Every one of Jesus’s instructions, the very ones that make us straighten up and shake our heads in denial, they are all forms of creative nonviolence. Jesus wanted us to use our heads, not just shake them. His followers were to resist sinking to the level of cruelty but at the same time make obvious the cruelty being done to them, not just roll over and take it.
Violence only begets more violence and a never-ending spiral of “justifiable” anger and brutality. Creative non-violence may spark anger, but it highlights the flaws of the system, cracking open the door to change. The more people who see that sliver of light, the more likely change is to happen. It takes patience but in the long run is more effective. Jesus wanted us to use our brains and not our hands. He did.